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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cursed takes up the sword for the female-focused Arthurian legend

Illustration for article titled iCursed/i takes up the sword for the female-focused Arthurian legend
Graphic: Allison Corr, Photo: Netflix

Note: This piece contains plot details about the Netflix series Cursed.

The legend of King Arthur has endured for centuries. Its influence—best known from Thomas Malory’s 1485 volume Le Morte D’Arthur and its more recent interpretation, T.H. White’s The Once And Future King in 1958—can still be spotted in everything from YA novels to Transformers movies to Star Wars. This year, we have the upcoming The Green Knight, with Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, and the new Netflix series Cursed, which revolves around a young Nimue, who will eventually become the Lady Of The Lake. Primarily, women don’t fare very well in the Arthurian legend. The king’s knights function as a close-knit boys’ club hanging around a round table, with Lancelot, Gareth, et al. whooping it up after yet another victorious battle while enjoying multiple cups of wine and mead. The story’s female characters are usually either malevolent sorceresses or tossed into nunneries.

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Which is why the 1983 novel The Mists Of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley was such a trailblazer, reimagining the Arthurian story from the point of view of the women in the tale: Morgaine (Arthur’s half-sister), Igraine (his mother), Viviane (his aunt), Morgause (another half-sister), and Gwynwyfar (his wife). A torn Arthur eventually loses the support of Morgaine and the “old magic” population of Avalon by embracing the tenets of Christianity, which ultimately leads to his downfall. In 2001, the novel became a miniseries, with the cast billed as the women behind Arthur: Julianna Margulies as Morgaine, Anjelica Huston as Viviane, and Samantha Mathis as Gwynwyfar.

As groundbreaking as Mists Of Avalon was in the refocusing of the story from the men to the women, subsequent personal revelations about Zimmer Bradley, which include sexual abuse accusations against her from two of her children, have caused the fantasy fiction community to denounce the author. More recent film based on the legend, like Guy Ritchie’s failed franchise effort King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, have mostly stuck to the original bromance. At least 1995’s First Knight and 2004’s King Arthur made attempts to transform the usually passive Guinevere from the cog in a love triangle into a fierce warrior.

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Cursed is therefore a refreshing, much-needed addition to the Arthurian genre, filling the gap that Mists Of Avalon leaves behind by placing young sorceress Nimue at the center of the tale. Based on a 2019 YA novel by Thomas Wheeler and illustrated by Frank Miller, it’s a bit of a prequel. As in other versions of the legend, in which the Lady Of The Lake bestows Excalibur upon Arthur and becomes his protector, this Nimue is very much tied to the exalted weapon, which makes the person who possesses it the king of kings. Or, in this case, queen.

This vital distinction is Cursed’s greatest asset. Nimue carries the vast majority of the tale: She lives in a tent village as one of the Sky Folk, a faction of the Fey (fairy) people that the book explains are “no strangers to the Hidden, invisible nature spirits from whom Nimue’s clan were believed to be descended.” When the evil, church-led Red Paladins raid the pagan camp, Nimue’s dying mother tasks her with delivering the all-important sword to Merlin. Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why) is up to the task as the formidable young woman who’s still vulnerable and questioning, especially when it appears that she has disquieting magical powers of her own. Nimue’s earth-based Hidden powers fit into the universal “Mother Earth” mythology that defines the terra as feminine—she’s able to manipulate flora like plants and branches to defend herself when under attack.

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Nimue runs into a noble but humble Arthur, but he’s sidelined here, mainly of importance as her romantic interest. Cursed is not only female-forward, it also skews younger (based as it is on a YA novel) and more inclusive, casting Black actors Devon Terrell and Shalom Brune-Franklin as Arthur and his sister, Morgana. A diverse Arthurian arena is woefully overdue, and Cursed is steadfast in its message of universal acceptance. Other clans that Nimue and her friends bond with in their rebellion against the Church encompass other species, like the Fauns and the Snake people. After Nimue accidentally spies Morgana and her lover, Celia, kissing, Morgana is defensive, but Nimue readily assures her that she won’t expose the pair, “not because I’m afraid, but because you did nothing wrong.” The Red Paladins’ rejection of anyone who strays from their rigid beliefs is not only cruel but murderous, leading to burning pagans alive on crucifixes, vividly displaying the ultimate dangers of intolerance.

More figures from Camelot also pop up—Matt Stokoe makes a particularly striking Gawain—but the true identities of Lancelot and Percival aren’t revealed until the final episode. The knights moving to the background leaves the women free to take command, led by Nimue, as she tries not to become overwhelmed by her own power and that inherent in the sword. Cursed positions not just Nimue but also the other female characters to be in charge. It does so without hesitation, so much so that you forget how much you’re used to seeing almost all-male Arthurian casts. After the raid on the Druid village, Nimue’s friend Pym (Lily Newmark) escapes to a raider (pirate) ship, which is brutally ruled by the Red Spear (Bella Dayne). King Uther (Sebastian Armesto) is an ineffectual ruler, his strings most obviously pulled by his much stronger mother (played by the always intimidating Polly Walker), who blithely tells him, “I do not wish to be your enemy… nor do I fear it.” When Nimue wants to head out on her quest to find Merlin, and Arthur and Gawain fight over who should escort her, she wisely picks Kaze (Adaku Ononogbo) instead, a female warrior as powerful as either knight. Even Nimue’s mother, Lenore (Catherine Walker), cognizant of the female force inherent in magic as the Fey village’s Arch Druid, unfailingly stands up to Merlin, telling him, “I will not fear you or any other man.”

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Cursed’s Merlin may be the most powerful man in the series, but he’s a ruined, drunk, centuries-old wizard, who’s lost his magic and his one true love, Lenore. (Gustaf Skarsgård expertly swashbuckles through the role, like only a Skarsgård can.) The series plays with traditional Arthurian legends and bloodlines: While Nimue is usually Merlin’s love, here she’s his daughter, the result of the affair between the wizard and Lenore. Arthur doesn’t pull the sword from the stone—although Nimue does use it atop a giant rock to fend off a pack of wolves—but first steals it from Nimue. Yet there’s still enough of the old legend to draw in the Arthurian devotee: Instead of looking for the Green Knight, Gawain actually becomes him; Nimue is still the vehicle for Arthur finding his way to the sword; and she has a few show-stopping scenes rising out of and diving into water, perfectly befitting the future Lady Of The Lake. Morgana is still young, but we see definite hints of the calculating sorceress she will eventually become.

Cursed only really starts to stumble in its latter episodes, once Nimue is pronounced the Fey Queen due to her possession of the sword. Her earlier quest alongside pals like Morgana and Kaze is more enjoyable, though it’s heartening to see her balk at her mother’s final request to turn the sword over to Merlin, believing herself to be a better keeper of the sword than the faltering wizard. Once queen, Nimue wrestles with her power; meanwhile the plot gets bogged down with various factions warring and scheming to figure out how to take Nimue—who they call the Wolf-Blood Witch—down. The scenes of quarreling, ineffectual men are tiresome, especially compared to the warrior women we’ve come to know. And the series’ violence is so relentlessly gruesome, it loses its impact after a while.

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Walker’s Lady Lunete rolls her eyes at the “pathetic world of men with their foolish bloodlines,” and rightly so. Cursed is better served by reinterpreting familiar character dynamics and pointing out why they’re ready to be updated. Arthur complains to Nimue, “I don’t like being saved by you; I want to do the saving,” but as it stands, she’s more powerful than he is. To cement that point, Arthur and Nimue’s big love scene is scored to the song “I Could Be Your King,” sung by none other than Langford herself.

Nimue’s ultimate defeat comes at the hands of the strangely pious Sister Iris (Emily Coates), who sneakily worms her way closer and closer to the Wolf-Blood Witch until she’s able to take her almost completely by surprise. In her own way, Iris is as determined as Nimue. She tells her on their first meeting that she is committed to turning out demons, and eventually burns down her entire convent because she fears it has been compromised by evil. Although her ultimate intent is homicidal, Iris is fighting for her own inclusion in a patriarchal hierarchy; she needs to pull off such an impressive battle to become the first female in the Trinity Guard. It’s a twist ending, but also a very fitting one: In the arena of Arthurian legend, the men fight constantly, but in the world of Cursed, it’s the women’s battles that matter most.

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Mists Of Avalon proved how valuable a female-focused Arthurian interpretation could be; Cursed takes up that sword with a version that’s even more inclusive. There’s no word yet on a second season, but hopefully future Cursed episodes will be able to offer more adventures of these long-beloved characters, here cast in a new and beguiling light.

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